★ Ebook Q & A

M’colleague Matt F W Curran recently sent me some ques­tions about my adven­tures in the ebook trade. I thought my answers might be use­ful to oth­ers, so I’ve pos­ted them here.

Did you e-publish via an e-publisher?

No, I decided that it would be best to con­trol the pro­cess myself. One of the more frus­trat­ing parts of being an author is being unable to cor­rect typos in the final book, blurb, and so on. Amazon makes this trivi­al. My research pri­or to going it alone also demon­strated that many ebooks pub­lished on an author’s behalf were hor­rendously format­ted, pre­sum­ably because the job was giv­en lower pri­or­ity and few­er resources than the more pres­ti­gi­ous print edi­tion.

If so, what is their commission and would you do it again?

I’ve left this ques­tion in because I did, a few months back, use the online ser­vice Smashwords. This ser­vice takes your book (format­ted in Word — alarm bells ringing yet?) and spits it out to mul­tiple online retail­ers, includ­ing Barnes and Noble. I used this because it was the only way I could get my book onto iBooks. Smashwords wanted the doc­u­mented format­ted accord­ing to some unusu­al con­ven­tions. I hired a nice American lady to do this for me. She trades under the name MediaWorx. I paid her $45 and she did a flaw­less job. Ultimately, it was for noth­ing, because Smashwords uses a gen­er­ic tool to con­vert your Word doc­u­ment into dif­fer­ent ver­sions for the online ser­vices, and the out­put is embar­rass­ingly cruddy. Fortunately, I’ve only sold about 4 cop­ies via Smashwords. The vast major­ity of my sales have been through Amazon.

If you didn’t e-publish via an e-publisher and did it wholly alone, has it been easy?

I’ll inter­pret that ‘easy’ as a rel­at­ive term. Yes, it was very easy. When I was pub­lished by a small press, I had to do all my own mar­ket­ing. I had to wait months for roy­alty cheques that nev­er came; had no clue where review cop­ies had been sent; had to put up with a dodgy cov­er; had all kinds of issues with dis­tri­bu­tion; had to turn up in per­son and make myself a nuis­ance on a shop-by-shop basis to get word out.

And do you think there are any benefits to being published via an independent e-publisher regardless of the sacrifice in terms of profits? In other words would it add relevance or legitimacy to your work to be seen to be published independently rather than self-published?

My first response is a mis­in­ter­pret­a­tion of your ques­tion, which I’ve left in. The ques­tion I thought I read was: “Are there advant­ages to being tra­di­tion­ally pub­lished?”

The simple answer is “Yes”. I grew up in an era where writers still used type­writers and my dreams of suc­cess (that is, selling a book to some­body) were all wrapped up in weighty, paper manu­scripts, lunch meet­ings with agents, and see­ing myself on the shelf of a book­shop. I still want that and I can’t help it. The desire, how­ever, is irra­tion­al. I’m immeas­ur­ably bet­ter off now.

And now for the answer to your actu­al ques­tion:

There could cer­tainly be bene­fits in terms of time-sav­ing, but I think all the tools you need for a good book are at your dis­pos­al. Hire your own edit­or. I can sug­gest Clare Christian or Olivia Wood. Hire a cov­er design­er, such as Emma Barnes. The trick­i­er bit is the lay­out of your book, but you can prob­ably hire someone to do that too. I’m not wheth­er it’s a good use of money to hire a middle man (the ‘pub­lish­er’ again) to do this for you.

How much do cover-designs cost?

I’ve got three cov­ers. The first, Deja Vu, was a stock photo from iStockPhoto.com, which I bought for about £50 and worked into my own design. Flashback was designed pro­fes­sion­ally by Emma Barnes for £699.13 (though I’ve since star­ted using anoth­er design based on an iStockPhoto vec­tor, which works bet­ter as a thumb­nail; I’ll use the Barnes design for a paper­back). The cov­er for my romantic com­edy Proper Job is a com­bin­a­tion of two vec­tor graph­ics, totalling about £80, which I put togeth­er in my own design.

Are you making enough money for it to be a financially-worthwhile endeavour (of course, simply being read is worthwhile anyway, but for the extra effort and time put it to get it out there — was it worthwhile?).

In a word, yes. My cur­rent income from the books since March is £2,072.11 and $222. Outgoings are £1,268.40. Profit about £800 before tax. That’s not huge, but the ini­tial costs are all fixed.

How did you come to the price point of the two books? I note that Flashback changed to a cheaper price — did that help?

I wanted the books to be free. (I’m lucky enough to have a full time job as an aca­dem­ic, so I was pre­pared to pay for the cov­ers and edit­ing myself.) Since that wasn’t straight­for­ward, I made them as cheap as pos­sible. This took a little nerve, I must admit, par­tic­u­larly when I saw the ini­tial sales take off, but it’s import­ant to remem­ber that I’m in a pos­i­tion where nobody knows who I am. I want as many people to read my books as pos­sible. Meanwhile, I’ll be mak­ing a brand of my name if I’m any good. There is room for increas­ing the price later on, but for now it’s as well to remem­ber that the mar­ket is not demand­ing my books at all. They’re buy­ing them on a ‘Why not?’ basis. If I increased the price sig­ni­fic­antly (say, into the 70% roy­alty rate, which needs a sale price of £1.70, I think), it’s very likely that I would flat­ten my sales.

Secondly, I’m in it for the long haul.

As for the price of Flashback, I did increase that briefly to £1.70. That was, in ret­ro­spect, prob­ably an irra­tion­al move motiv­ated by the price of its cov­er. I wasn’t sure at the time that the sales pro­file of Deja Vu would remain the same. Turns out it did. When Flashback earned back the cost of its cov­er, I dropped its price. The sales cor­rel­ated very closely with price.

Postcards from the Edge (of St Petersburg)

In 2008, I wrote an entry on this blog entitled The End.

About a year and a half ago, I fin­ished the second Saskia Brandt nov­el, Flashback. My thoughts for the third one centred around Imperial Russia. I was par­tic­u­larly inter­ested in pla­cing Saskia – who derives her advant­ages from an almost dir­ect con­nec­tion between her nervous sys­tem and the Internet – in a situ­ation where she could have no real advant­age bey­ond her know­ledge of the future.

I don’t remem­ber much about the exper­i­ence of writ­ing that book, The Amber Rooms, so it’s inter­est­ing to con­tin­ue read­ing this entry.

[The Amber Rooms] was a pleas­ure to write. I wanted to pro­duce some­thing that reminded me of Alistair MacLean, where the story’s struc­ture reflects a heist and the read­er not entirely informed about how much the prot­ag­on­ist knows. To help get this right, I plot­ted much of the nov­el in advance.

I think about my life at that point. In short: Publishers weren’t buy­ing my books; I felt redund­ant as a writer; I knew I would soon aban­don my goal of writ­ing books. That aban­don­ment — that real­isa­tion of the tox­icity of my situ­ation — was brief. I am writ­ing again. However, I con­sidered The Amber Rooms to be a last waltz. The manu­script would remain on my com­puter, keep­ing the unpub­lished Flashback com­pany, while I turned my back on the one thing I do very well: write.

The point of writ­ing a book, I sup­pose, is to get it pub­lished. I’m not con­fid­ent that it will be picked up by a pub­lish­er – not because I lack con­fid­ence in the book, but because the second book hasn’t found a pub­lish­er yet. The third book isn’t likely to shift if the second one hasn’t.

And:

Do I think I deserve to be pub­lished? No. That’s too strong. I mean this: I don’t write books so I can put them in a draw­er.

Let me turn back to an earli­er entry. This is dated 1st November, 2007, five days before my birth­day:

At the moment, I have some ideas that refuse to tes­sel­late. I hope my gentle read­ers won’t be offen­ded if I don’t go into them in too much detail. Suffice it to say that I’m read­ing some excel­lent oral his­tor­ies of women anarch­ists in 1870s Russia. An intriguing archi­tec­tur­al folly known as the Amber Room will fea­ture.

I have stood in the Amber Room. The Russian gov­ern­ment would prefer vis­it­ors not to take pic­tures there, so I did not. But I stood with­in it. I stud­ied its pan­els and frowned into its mir­rors. I closed my eyes and breathed in; it did not smell of pine, which was unex­pec­ted. The moment I remem­ber most clearly is my girl­friend look­ing at me as though she loved me. So we made it to the Amber Room. This strange thing I do — fic­tion — has not been quite des­troyed by my fail­ure to con­vince a tra­di­tion­al pub­lish­er to take a chance on it.

I tried to ima­gine Saskia Brandt reflec­ted in one of those tall mir­rors between the amber pan­els.

I made it to the end point of the cre­at­ive pro­cess for Flashback. That is, I got the book to read­ers.

Yesterday, someone in America called Suki read Flashback and wrote:

Hocking does not make a mis­step in this beau­ti­fully con­struc­ted nov­el, and when his tal­ent for plot meets his tal­ent for prose, the res­ult is extraordin­ary. I look for­ward to the next Saskia Brandt adven­ture!

On the 17th March, 2008, I wrote:

So what is it? What’s the story, Saskia? Why are you stand­ing on the threshold of the Amber Room, and what does it have to do with going home?

The story is…well, it’s anoth­er adven­ture. All stor­ies are adven­tures. And going home.

St Petersburg
Sailing into St Petersburg via the Gulf of Finland — 6.30 a.m., 23rd August 2011

Brass Tacks on Déjà Vu and Flashback

Did I men­tion that I’ve been gate-crash­ing Scott Pack’s blog with some stats on my how well my books are selling?

Your friend and mine, Scott, left me a mes­sage at our usu­al dead drop — behind the third cer­vical ver­tebra of the dip­lodoc­us in the foy­er of the Natural History Museum. In some­what breath­less prose, he asked that I fur­nish read­ers with the latest epis­ode in my ebook adven­ture before they actu­ally explode with curi­os­ity.

I didn’t?

Say no more: it’s over here.